Magnum Photos

The Russian film director Alexander Sokurov, 1998; photograph by Lise Sarfati


About halfway through Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary 2002 film Russian Ark, a movie that takes the form of a surreal tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a woman who’s holding forth about a certain painting pauses to observe that “there are so many symbols we can only guess about.” Indeed. The painting in question, Van Dyck’s Virgin with the Partridges, is, to be sure, enigmatic. But by the time you’ve gotten this far into Sokurov’s film—with its unchronological tableaux of pre-Revolutionary moments (a glimpse of Nicholas and Alexandra at tea with their children is followed by a ball given by Alexander I), its jarring juxtapositions of imperial grandeur and human crudity (Catherine the Great hurrying away from a lavish private performance because, as she cries out, she must have a “piss”), its unsettling repetitions (one long scene is repeated in toto), and its many surreal gestures (the woman lecturing on Van Dyck happens to be blind)—you can’t help thinking that the remark about unfathomable symbols is meant to refer to the film itself. Despite the smoothness of its surface—the result, not least, of the fact that it was shot in one unbroken take, the longest in film history—the movie is nonetheless continuously ruffled by jagged intrusions of elements that are ostensibly inexplicable but clearly, somehow, meaningful. Small wonder that another character in Russian Ark stops at one point to ask himself, “Is this a dream?”

Dreams, as it happens, fill the movies of Sokurov. “Last night I had a dream” are the first words spoken in Mother and Son, the 1997 feature that made the director’s international reputation. (He had begun in the 1970s as a documentarian and then became a disciple of Andrei Tarkovsky, some of whose intensely devotional, meditative style Sokurov absorbed while giving it a secular, psychologizing, oneiric cast.) An almost unbearably intense, virtually wordless study of the final hours of a terminally ill middle-aged woman whose son has come, perhaps a little reluctantly, to be with her, that film begins with a dialogue between the immobile, recumbent mother and the handsome young son about the dreams and nightmares they have both been having. (“That means we have the same dreams!” the son concludes. “Yes, we do,” the mother exhaustedly responds.)

The film’s companion piece, the unsettlingly homoerotic Father and Son (2003), also begins with a dream—a bad one, in this case: we first hear, and then see, a teenaged boy moaning in distress as he gradually wakes from a nightmare in his father’s arms. (They are both naked; the nature of the moaning is not, at first, entirely clear.) Later on, the father remarks that his son’s dreams “are getting out of hand,” a conclusion with which it is hard to disagree, given that the boy nearly kills the father in his dream—a not-too-subtle expression of his submerged yearning to move out of the overprotective father’s apartment and start his own life.

“All is like a dream,” intones the narrator of Oriental Elegy (1996), an eerie, fog-shrouded fantasy about a Japanese island whose denizens, interviewed at length by a narrator, seem to be ghosts. A documentary that Sokurov made the following year, A Simple Life, which meticulously records a day in the life of a solitary Japanese woman, a kimono-maker living in a secluded village, cannot help alluding to this favorite motif: “Dear Hiroko,” the narrator begins, mysteriously quoting a letter whose provenance is never explained, “last night I had no dreams, but did I sleep or was it already nonexistence?”

And then there is Russian Ark, which—as sometimes happens in dreams—constantly and disorientingly worries whether it is dreaming itself. “Is this a dream?” asks the character who we might call the film’s protagonist: Astolphe de Custine, the aristocratic French historian of Russian autocracy at the beginning of the nineteenth century, whose stork-like, black-clad figure somewhat bemusedly leads us through the Hermitage while stopping to chat, now and then, with various pass- ersby: early-nineteenth-century partygoers, late-twentieth-century visitors to the museum, it makes no difference to him as long as he gets to toss off barbed comments about history and politics and art. (“Russians are so talented at copying, because you don’t have ideas of your own. Your authorities don’t want you to have any.”) When the Custine of Sokurov’s film, who is rather sentimental about the past—“everyone can see the future but nobody remembers the past,” he grumbles at one point—is sternly reminded by the twentieth-century narrator that “monarchy isn’t eternal,” the marquis playfully replies, “Don’t I have the right to dream a little?” To which the narrator, just as playfully but with a certain pointedness too, retorts: “Dream away!”


This tart acknowledgment that there is a gulf between dreams (Custine’s, and the film’s, willful decision to look only at the imperial past) and reality (that past is irretrievably lost) is an important reminder that Sokurov’s dreams are more than soft and “poetic” reveries, pretty pictures meant to evoke pleasant nostalgia. As with dreams, his images and narratives always suggest other, hidden truths: these surfaces invite, even require, interpretation. The way the young man in Mother and Son keeps looking at a plume of smoke from a train that keeps mysteriously passing, the way the director constantly bends and stretches certain images, suggest that the emotions in play here are a good deal more complex, and a good deal darker, than the ideal love that some critics see as the movie’s subject.

Sokurov’s penchant for turning away from our waking understanding of our lives in favor of the truths that reverie can reveal is even more important for certain of his films that have larger perspectives, and larger ambitions. These films include not only his masterpiece, Russian Ark, with its poignant exploration of historical nostalgia, but also Moloch (1999), a fantasy that follows Hitler, Eva Braun, and some guests during a day’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, and Taurus (2001), an eccentrically imaginative reconstruction of Lenin’s last days—the first two installments of a planned tetralogy about twentieth-century autocrats, of which The Sun, about Hirohito’s last day as a god, is the third. (Released abroad in 2005, it had its US premiere only last month.) It is the profoundest and aesthetically the most satisfying of his excursions into biography, films in which his preoccupation with dreams serves what may be his real interest: history.


Or, rather, a very specific facet of history. At a showing of The Sun at the Berlin Film Festival, Sokurov declared that he is not interested in the “events or the period” when he makes a historical movie. The facts of history are not what he wants to evoke; these correspond to the waking reality for which, in so many films, he has shown little interest.

Instead, he explained—and this is hardly surprising in someone who came of age in the stagnant final days of the Soviet regime—Sokurov is interested in exploring the gap that opens up between human realities and what he calls the “theater” of ideological performances. He elucidated this notion in Berlin when asked about Moloch, a movie whose effectiveness, in great part, derives from the contrasts between the awesome, fortress-like scale of the Berchtesgaden redoubt and the grandiosity of the ceremony that envelops Hitler and his party, on the one hand, and, on the other, the grotesque baseness of “Adi”‘s and Eva’s antics—naked gymnastics on the balcony, slapstick kicks in the buttocks, impromptu wrestling matches, etc. “These people, the people of power, turned their lives into theater…subordinated their behavior to rituals and ceremonies,” the director said.

Moloch is haunted by this tension between impressive outward show and inner realities. One intimate scene between Eva and Adi begins in his bathroom with Eva noticing some stains on his dress uniform; “they come from the body,” the whiny, hypochondriacal Hitler mournfully observes. This telling reference to the difference between bodies and the clothes that cover them inspires the most pointed line in the movie: a moment later, Eva suddenly looks at her lover with disgust and says, “Without an audience, you’re no better than a corpse.” For Sokurov, a survivor of the Soviet system, to grandiosely enact history—to sacrifice humanity to ideology—is to be emptied of life itself.

Anxieties about role-playing and the tension between public roles and private realities, between the large events that constitute “history” and the rich if often irretrievable humanity beneath them, are at the core of Russian Ark, whose extraordinary atmosphere of wistful tenderness—in contrast to the equally extraordinary atmosphere of repellent crudeness that characterizes Moloch—results, not least, from the fact that most of its subjects are not the makers of history, but comparatively ordinary people—the anonymous courtiers, the nameless partygoers and dinner guests and stewards and musicians. (When the movie does train its eye on the tsars and tsaritsas, what we see are their private rather than public faces.) “Are we supposed to be playing a role?” Custine nervously asks the cameraman at one point; but the point of Russian Ark is to focus, again, on what lay behind the elaborate roles and enactments that constituted life at the Winter Palace during the Imperial era.

The film announces this preoccupation from the start. It begins with a black screen and a voiceover by the never-identified narrator, who may well be Sokurov; he seems to be regaining consciousness after some kind of “accident” that, you strongly feel, is meant to refer to the Revolution and the Soviet period. (“Everyone ran to safety as best they could.”) Then, as an image comes into focus, history yields to human pleasures: we see a gaggle of well-dressed revelers—it seems to be the early part of the nineteenth century—looking for a grand party. As the camera/narrator starts to follow this dashing group through a series of twisting passageways and staircases and then into the sumptuous galleries of what had been the Winter Palace, we catch glimpses of another kind of history—one that, as in Moloch, is not, for the most part, the history we read about in most history books.


Instead, Sokurov’s camera glides past and through a series of remarkably staged tableaux, astonishingly overflowing with magnificent period dress, of lost, minor, or forgotten moments, as if to remind us that most of the history lurking behind the Hermitage and its collections—and much of the history before “the accident”—was composed of unremarkable, human moments. Here again, the emphasis is on the contrast between the magnificence of the “theater” and the smallness of the people required to play their roles. (Sometimes literally: while Catherine watches the ballet, the camera shows us the performers lounging in the wings. That was history too.) One setpiece concerns an opulent diplomatic ceremony in which the Persian ambassador to the court of Nicholas I formally apologizes for the murder of Russian envoys in Tehran (“His Majesty has sent me to erase from memory this event,” the Persian prince announces, tellingly). But the camera’s attention is focused less on the ceremony than on the courtiers who stand fidgeting and gossiping. “A terrible boredom will set in,” Custine sighs as he leaves the reception room to inspect the Sèvres porcelain at the reception that will follow. The boredom was also part of the story.


Wellspring/Everett Collection

A scene from Russian Ark, 2002

When there are reminders of what we might call “big historical moments,” they are the more powerful for being so fleeting, so subtle. At one point, the narrator enters a room that he is told is forbidden, and that is clearly meant to evoke the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II; in it—as a fierce winter storm suddenly rages outside the windows—we see a man in mid-twentieth-century garb making coffins in a room that had apparently once been used to make gilded frames for paintings. Later on, we overhear an anxious Empress Alexandra murmuring “I thought I heard shots” to a nun, as she glides down a hallway toward her tea party. As indeed she will, one day.

These vignettes representing official history, as well as the tableaux showing us what we could call unofficial history, are punctuated by the jarringly surreal moments that give the movie its dream-like quality. A woman on the perilous boundary between middle and old age gesticulates suggestively before a painting of a voluptuous odalisque; that blind woman gives a sensitive account of a number of works of art to a visitor who can see; a pair of handsome modern-day sailors sniff intently at an oil painting after Custine has remarked on its wonderful smell. (Sokurov’s camera tends to linger on the faces of pretty young men, as much in his several documentaries about soldiers as in his narrative films. In one eerily memorable scene in Russian Ark, Custine looms over a handsome, cowering youth in a corner of a gallery, wordlessly threatening him—with what, it’s not quite possible to know.)

Indeed, the two most beautiful images in this movie of so many beautiful images seem to have no apparent meaning at all. In the first, a plump and elderly Catherine II escapes from a stifling room—she’s been showing some children how to curtsey—and runs into a snow-covered courtyard; the camera follows her as she runs, with increasing speed, through a path in the snow, her gray satin train trailing behind her, a wordless shot that lasts an uncannily long time. (Sokurov likes to dwell unnaturally on certain images, a technique that at once induces reverie and focuses attention.) In the second—at the end of the movie—a stream of richly dressed courtiers (the ones from the Persian ceremony, perhaps) stream down an extraordinary ceremonial double staircase. The river of courtiers, Pushkin among them, keeps swelling, it seems, and the amazed camera, which is following them down the steps, keeps spinning back and up to capture the swirling movement of the people, the stairway itself, this moment.

As these sumptuously attired characters begin to crowd and overwhelm the screen, the camera cuts away to a small, oddly glowing doorway; beyond it, we see, is not the city of St. Petersburg but a white, icy ocean of some kind. This small moment, at last, explains the film’s title: for as we now see, we are indeed aboard an “ark”—a cinematic vessel that has rescued, “as best it could,” apparently random moments from history, and that will float forever in an endlessly circling stream of time itself.


If Russian Ark offers tantalizing glimpses of people whom history has forgotten, as well as of men and women who seem very small and vulnerable in comparison to the roles they were required to play, then The Sun puts Sokurov’s special emphases to excellent use as it explores the gap between historical grandiosity and human weakness at a moment in history when that gulf was most glaringly exposed: the day on which Hirohito consented to acknowledge that he was not, in fact, a god.

The film, like Moloch, uses the events of one day as the armature on which to build up a subtle account of the disproportion between a man and his historical persona. ( The Sun also shares Moloch ‘s dour palette of washed-out browns, greens, and grays, in stark contrast to the opulent colors that enrich Russian Ark.) When it opens, we find Hirohito, now living in a bunker beneath his palace, at breakfast, being given his day’s agenda by his chamberlain. Nothing is left to chance: after his ten o’clock meeting with his military cabinet and his noon visit to his lab (the late emperor, now technically known as Sh¯owa, was an accomplished marine biologist with a number of scholarly publications to his name), he is informed when he may nap and when he may have time for “private thoughts.” This is a man who, it seems, is unable to function on his own, outside of the structure of court life—a point that is wonderfully made toward the end of the film when, as he leaves a meeting with General MacArthur, he confronts for the first time a door that isn’t being opened for him. Bemused, he tentatively reaches down, grabs the handle, and opens it himself, something he has clearly never done before.

And like Moloch, this film uses an undue focus on the autocrat’s body as a means of underscoring the difference between his public persona and his private self. The former is the object of ardent ministrations by everyone but the emperor himself, who seems if anything eager to be a normal human being. Early on, when he wryly remarks to his valet—who has commented, apropos of a radio report that the Americans are just outside Tokyo, that as long as there is one Japanese left standing the Americans will never set foot in the palace—that “the very last Japanese may be myself,” the servant exclaims in horror that “it is outlandish to assert that the emperor could be human.” To which a plaintive Hirohito replies, “But my body is the same as yours.” The ordinariness of his body is strongly linked, in the script, to the ordinariness of Hirohito’s inner life and emotions: at one point his disgusted observation that his breath lately “has a bad smell and a bad taste” leads seamlessly into the equally unhappy assertion that “no one loves me except for my wife and my older son.”

The action of the film, such as it is—Sokurov is never really interested in strong narratives—follows the events that will make the humble truth of the emperor’s observation plain even to the most fanatically loyal of his household. Again and again, he shows himself blind to the realities of the historical situation. During his morning military meeting, he responds to what is clearly a crushingly dire report from his minister of the army by quoting a poem written by his grandfather, the emperor Meiji: “Sea to the north and to the south, to the west and to the east/waves whirl up.” This the emperor interprets, to the obvious anguish of his perspiring ministers, to mean that “peace on favorable terms to my people is the only peace; let the sea continue to rage.” (Hirohito really did recite a poem by Meiji at an imperial conference, but it was clearly pacifist in its implications.)

Later on, clad in a white coat in his laboratory, he delivers an ecstatic monologue about the virtues of the hermit crab—an animal to which he bears an uncanny resemblance: “the crab can cover himself…it lives at shallow depths and doesn’t migrate very far”—which leads to a grotesquely self-serving account of the reasons for Japanese military aggression in Asia:

Migration…migration…yes, it never leaves its shores. Migration…Settled. Settled. Distant migration…migration of species…migration. Emigration! Discrimination! Unfair immigration laws! I remember…Wake up! I remember about the causes that brought about the Great Asian War…When the American government forbade Japanese immigration, which occurred in the State of California in 1924, that discrimination became a serious cause of anger and indignation among our people, and the military rode this wave of protest.

It is not the last time in the film that the emperor, who seems to grow smaller and more awkward during his final hours as a god, rather pathetically attempts to deflect any accountability for his interventions in history. Later on, when he finally meets with a bemused and condescending MacArthur, he seems to think that his assertion that he wasn’t actually Hitler’s “friend” will absolve him of responsibility. The crab can cover himself.

Hirohito’s interest in marine biology provides Sokurov with a fruitful thematic and visual leitmotif: images of fish glide through the film, marking its most emotionally and politically significant moments.

The most striking of these is in a sequence representing a daydream the emperor has while resting alone in his study. (He’s been leafing through some photo albums: family albums, whose pictures he tenderly kisses, as well as albums containing photos of Hollywood stars—one of whom, Charlie Chaplin, he will be compared to later in the film.) Suddenly he has a vision of American bombers morphing into wiggling, demonic catfish that rain fire on his dominions. (Earlier, before urging the army to continue fighting, Hirohito the biologist observes that the na- muzu, or catfish, protects itself by sinking to the bottom of the water.) Before, his disquisition on hermit crabs was the vehicle for our appreciation of his historical arrogance; now, only after his beloved fish are conflated with bombers, does the enemies’ destructiveness becomes real to him finally. This is the moment when he acknowledges defeat. All this inspires Hirohito to attempt a poem of his own, a cliché verse that inadvertently echoes certain sentiments we find in Russian Ark : “The spring sakura [cherry blossom] and the January snow,” begins an early version, “neither lasts long.”)

The marine motif is present even in the countenance of Hirohito, to whom Sokurov has given a peculiar tic: over and over again he purses his lips and moves them laboriously, soundlessly—the face you’d make if you had to act out “fish out of water” in a game of charades. For he is, indeed, a fish out of water, a man who on this day seems at home neither in the divine nor in the human element.

Another recurrent motif that suggests the devolution of Hirohito from god to man is an embarrassed physicality; Sokurov stages a number of excruciatingly awkward encounters between the emperor and his subordinates. There is the marvelous opening scene with the valet, during which the old man has great trouble buttoning his master’s shirt, and an exquisitely anguished scene in which there is great and prolonged confusion about where to seat the director of a scientific institute who has come at the emperor’s request in order to discuss a question of long-standing interest to the emperor. Could his grandfather Meiji have seen the Northern Lights, as he once claimed? No, says the scientist, with great embarrassment, after which the emperor observes that the poor man probably hasn’t eaten all day, and sends him off with a chocolate bar, a gift from the conquering Americans.


Lorber Films

Issei Ogata, center, as Emperor Hirohito in The Sun, 2005

There are two scenes with MacArthur, during which the emperor keeps parrying the American’s blunt questions with replies that are either dazzlingly evasive or staggeringly banal:

“What’s it like being a living god?”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Of course the Emperor’s life is not easy. Some of his habits and hobbies are taken skeptically. Take the catfish for example…with whom shall he share his admiration for its perfection?”

And there is a splendid scene in which the emperor agrees to have his picture to be taken by a group of US Army photographers, who react with dismay, and then amusement, to the unprepossessing, Chaplinesque figure in a suit and a fedora who answers to the title of “emperor.” They had thought that his chamberlain, magnificently attired in a morning coat and tails, must be this august figure.

And finally, one of the best scenes that Sokurov has ever filmed depicts the climactic encounter between Hirohito and his wife, the empress Nagako, who has been brought back to Tokyo from her family’s refuge in the countryside. (This indulgence has been granted Hirohito once he has recorded the speech in which he relinquishes his divine status.) The two spouses come together in a small room and there ensues a beautifully staged bit of business about the empress’s hat, which she has trouble removing and which her physically shy and emotionally awkward husband finally frees of her lacquered hairdo, with some difficulty. The clunky physicality of this business, our awareness of the tension between his human self and the elaborate protocols of behavior of which he has now been stripped and without which he seems helpless to move—the scene concludes with the emperor rather woodenly laying his head on his wife’s breast and keeping it there, once again a bit too long—is the final proof of the claim he had made at the beginning of his day: that his body was like everyone else’s.

The point is not to defend Hirohito by somehow humanizing him, as some critics have claimed. If anything, The Sun makes us all too aware, not for the first time in this director’s work, of the catastrophic disproportion between the character of a man and the nature of the role he played in history. Sokurov’s eccentrically beautiful and finally overwhelming film concludes by emphasizing that disproportion—one that, in the end, doesn’t escape even his own wife. In their final moments together before they run off to see their children—and after being told by the chamberlain, pointedly, that the young man who recorded the emperor’s speech has committed hara-kiri—Hirohito delightedly announces to Nagako that he has abandoned his divinity. (“Basically, I felt uneasy…not good at all,” is the lumpy way he sums up his motivation.) To celebrate this moment of “freedom,” as he calls it, he recites for her the finished version of the poem he had started earlier in the afternoon:

Snow in winter looks like the sakura in March.
Time is indifferent and erases them both.

There is a moment’s pause during which, we imagine, the dreamy world of the poem dissolves into a startled awareness of reality. And then the empress asks, “Is that all?”

This Issue

February 11, 2010